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The Price that Life Extracts

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Prologue.

 

”There’s no time to argue,” the Keeper says.

 

"But, Keeper, who are they, what is happening, why aren’t-"

 

A sharp, deep, boom drowns the rest of his feeble protests. The treetops sways and a flock of birds darken the sun as they take to the skies. A shout is heard over the din, a deep, guttural cry in a language he has never heard before. He doesn’t understand the words, but the malice behind them is real enough. 

 

Himsulem feels his left foot forced into the stirrup, and then Soufei is planted in his lap. The child is crying so hard, his entire body is shaking, and instinctually Himsulem wraps an arm securely around the boy’s waist.

 

”You cannot leave us,” Himsulem says, hardly trusting his voice not to break. He has to keep calm, for Soufei´s sake, for all the other apprentices.

 

”Do not worry, da´lin. I am only going to distract them long enough for you and the other apprentices to get to safety.” The crystal in her staff is already aglow, a dim, green pulse that throbs against the surface of the gem.

 

”But-”

 

”You know the way, right?” She says, using more force than is strictly necessary to jam his right foot into the stirrup. She yanks at the saddle straps, before pulling the saddlebags off the halla’s back. The creature remains calm, almost listless, despite the sudden rough treatment of its gear.

 

”Yes, Keeper,” Himsulem says.

 

The Keeper nods before she turns around to help Ashiwyn mount the restless halla. Her older sister, Lisell is gripping the reins so hard that her knuckles have turned white, her face set in a scowl that would curdle milk. The rest of their group is similarly mounted, most of their gear abandoned on the ground. Anything to make them as light and fast as possible.

 

The sound of metal clanging against metal grows louder. Now and again he hears the odd elven war cry, the crackle of magic, but the voices never last long. Still, the foreigners advance, their guttural growls growing louder and louder. He knows their clan didn’t have time to prepare. He knows the only reason they are still alive is that they weren’t at the campsite when they came.

 

” You’re in charge now, First,” Keeper says. She yanks two amulets off her neck. The strange, clanky, bone necklace she always wears she drapes over Soufei´s head. Then she pushes a small, pendant into his hands. His hands move on heir own accord when they place the item into his right breast pocket.

 

” If you don’t hear from me in two days,” Keeper says, squeezing his hands, ” you open this, you can trust the voice on the other end.”

 

Himsulem shakes his head, uncertain he heard the Keeper correctly, ” trust the voice?”

 

"Go as deep into the temple as you can, do you remember where we hid the supplies?"

 

"Yes, Keeper."

 

Despite his layers of heavy cloth and leathers, he can still feel Soufei´s sobs against his ribcage. The child reaches his stubby arms towards the Keeper, but she takes a step back, seizing them up.  Himsulem straightens his posture, tries to belie the pitiful sight they are.  He’s drowning in a cloak he’s still not managed to grow into, and his feet are only bearly reaching the stirrups. He might be the oldest of them, but he’s only taller than Soufei, and he’s only five. The Keeper´s gaze softens for a moment, and she leans forward and whispers something into Soufei´s dark locks, before she pulls back. She yanks her hood over her face to hide her expression. But Himsulem has already seen her eyes and he hates being looked at like this like they aren’t going to see each other again.

 

"Keeper-"

 

A shriek rips him from his thoughts. The sound is far too short for Himsulem to make out any words. There´s the sound of fallen branches crushed under boots and then he sees the first shape emerge from the trees. It is larger than any shemlem, and only the red of his eyes visible in the slit of his helmet. He is moving slowly, burned by the heavy armour and the thick growth of the Brecilian forest. The creature raises a massive axe and hacks through the shrubbery, muttering something that can only be a curse.

 

Himsulem holds his breath and even Soufei stills in his arms.

 

Any moment now, he’s going to spot them.

 

Lisell bursts into tears, despite her sister’s best effort to keep her quiet. The creature turns his head slowly towards them, his head raised as if he’s scenting the air. Himsulem feels something hard and sharp settle behind his ribcage.

 

He meets the Keeper´s eyes, drinks in the sight of her, as if he’s trying to sear the memory of her permanently into his memory. The smooth slope of her brow and nose, her narrow, almond-shaped eyes, the shade of the Veil. Her long, dark, hair fastened into a thick braid, secured to her head by a diadem of some unknown metal. Twigs and winds have plucked a few locks of hair free. She smiles a short, brittle thing.

 

”Dareth shiral,” the Keeper brings her hand gently on the halla´s neck and the creature leaps. The sudden motion almost makes Himsulem lose his balance, and he grips Soufei tightly to keep them both seated in the saddle. The child wails and wails, his entire body fighting to get free from Himsulem´s grip.

 

The rest of the halla pack follows, sparred into action by the Keeper´s mount. The flock dances gracefully across the shrubbery and fern that has, until now, halted the advancing enemies.

 

Himsulem feels the back of his neck prickle as electricity crackles through the air.  A dark, thick, storm is cradled in the Keeper´s right hand and ribbons of lightning leaps across her arm and licks up her staff. A sudden gust of wind whips her hood off her head, wind swirling around her feet, picking up leaves and twigs as it gathers force. Himsulem can taste the magic on his tongue, feel the power being syphoned from the Fade. He’s heard whispered stories about the Keeper´s magical prowess, but until now he’s only ever seen her conjure flames to light the torches or the campfire. The skies snap with a splintering clap as bolts of lightning cuts through the trees.

 

The last thing he sees is his Keeper, walking with slow malice, like a red lion, towards the towering shades amongst the tree and the keen glint of their swords.